The joys and burdens of being an ED of color


orangesLast week I flew to Los Angeles to talk to a group of 12 or so Asian/Pacific Islander EDs who are in a leadership program of which I am an alum. This cohort was a group of all women. I was a bit nervous, looking at the leaders seated in a circle. First of all, there were some EDs who have had way more experience than I do. And second of all, people in LA are hella stylish, and in comparison, I looked like I was dressed by a few smarter-than-average bonobos.

The EDs came from all over the US and work in many different areas—art, cancer awareness, education, etc. They had the archetypal look of the Executive Director: Radiant good looks surrounded by an aura of power stymied by baggy eyes, greying hair, and the slouched shoulders of stress and exhaustion.

It’s rough being an ED, but being an ED of color has an additional set of stress:

First, we have to navigate two or more cultures, both the mainstream culture, as well as our own heritage. (See “The game of nonprofit, and how it leaves some communities behind.”) We have to learn all the unwritten rules of the American nonprofit system, and simultaneously have to deal with our communities’ dynamics. The latter is something that we have very little training on. What do you do when a community elder questions your integrity and calls you a communist? Well, you bring him three oranges. “Oh, look,” he’ll think, “this kid brought me some oranges. Oranges have vitamin C. He’s thinking about my health. I guess he’s not a communist after all.” That’s something I had to learn the hard way.

Second, our own cultural strengths can be a hindrance in navigating the mainstream nonprofit world. For instance, whereas being quiet and thoughtful is a great quality in many cultures, here in the US, where the squeakiest wheels get the worm, saying nothing in a meeting can be taken as a sign that you have nothing to contribute. It looks especially bad if you’re an ED. Also, in some cultures not combing your hair at all is considered a sign of high creativity; but here, it’s like “Vu, please comb your hair, we have a site visit, blah blah.” To be effective as a nonprofit leader means that we EDs of color oftentimes have to balance our traditional values with mainstream norms and learn to code switch, which is exhausting and sometimes feels fake to who we are.

Third, there is the constant pressure and time consumption of representing our ethnicity or culture or community or whatever. I get asked to join a lot of committees, sometimes on topics that I know nothing about—“Vu, would you consider joining the outreach committee for underwater welding safety awareness?”—not because I’m particularly brilliant or charming, but sometimes because I’m one of the few EDs of color who works with specific groups of people.

Fourth, among our own communities there is complete lack of understanding and appreciation of what we do. For many cultures, nonprofit is a wacky concept. I told my extended family in Vietnam that I have a Master’s in Social Work, and they were amazed. “Wow,” they said, “in the US, you can get a Master degree in anything: Shopping, eating, volunteering.” On occasion they’ll ask me if I have found a full-time job. “Your cousin’s restaurant is looking for waiters,” they might say, “in case you need some cash before you find a job.” Even my immediate family still has no clue what I do. And because they have no clue, no one is impressed by my work. My awesome, awesome work.  

For me, and I would imagine for many EDs of color, the biggest burden is the crippling guilt we sometimes feel for not doing our filial duties by being what our parents want us to be. Not many parents escaped war and poverty so that their kid could become a nonprofit director. Even after I had gotten my Masters (in Volunteering, apparently), my mother still hinted that I should consider going to med school. During dinner she would stare at me and give subtle hints such as “Why don’t you go to med school?” And for a long time, I felt awful, thinking of all my parents went through, all the sacrifices they made, washing dishes and delivering newspapers and working at a store 15 hours a day so we kids could go to college. To say that they were disappointed that I chose this line of work is an understatement. “You are going to an expensive school [Washington U in St. Louis] to get a degree in social work?” my father said, “that’s like using a cannon to kill a cockroach.” This constant sense that we are letting our parents and our entire community down can be a heavy load to bear.

As we talked, some of the EDs started tearing up. How do we do the work effectively without losing ourselves? How do we do endure the stresses of the field while facing indifference and occasional ridicule by our own families and communities? The EDs I talked to, like most EDs, are tired and frustrated—with all the above, with the funding dynamics, with our own ineffectiveness sometimes—and it was OK, in this setting, to let it out. It was cathartic.

We had a good conversation. After some venting, we reminded one another that we chose this line of work. Yeah, it’s difficult, but we chose it. I think most of us in the field are smart enough that we can do other things if we want to—underwater welding?—but most of us decided to continue to do this. One ED had left her career being a film producer to work for a nonprofit that does cancer awareness and prevention among API women. “When cancer rates are going down for all other ethnic groups,” she said, “it went up for API women.” EDs of color are vital to the field and with support can mobilize their communities like no one else can. And because there are not many of us, we’re somewhat of trailblazer in our communities, and that’s pretty kick-ass.

We chose this field, we love it, it vexes us. We can leave, and several in the room had already planned their exit. Still, people are burning out left and right; there has to be more support to develop and support the professionals in our field. Especially the professionals of color, the rare ones who enter the field instead of becoming an engineer or lawyer or doctor. At the very least, we need more funding to buy conciliatory fruit. 

I looked around the room at the amazing EDs who, despite the frustrations with the field and lack of appreciation from their own communities, love their missions and are dedicated to their work. Most of us are resigned to the fact that our families and communities may never understand or appreciate what we do, and that we’ll from time to time feel crappy for failing to be the son or daughter our parents wanted. But we’ll do this work anyway. “You guys are all unicorns,” I said, “you’re a unicorn, and you’re a unicorn.”

They laughed. One of the EDs, without knowing I was coming to talk, had forwarded to the group my blog post “The courage for mediocrity: We nonprofit professionals need to give ourselves a break.” Before I arrived, the group had adopted the unicorn as their mascot. This is great. Unicorns are awesome, even if our families have no clue what a unicorn is.